March 7, 2014

SC wants to require some food stamp recipients to prove they’re looking for jobs

The S.C. Department of Social Services said Friday it will seek a federal waiver for a pilot project that would require many food-stamp recipients in Bamberg, Calhoun and Orangeburg counties to prove they either have jobs or are looking for employment.

After a public flirtation with requiring food stamps be used only to buy healthier foods, Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration has decided to take a different course and require more food-stamp recipients find a job.

The S.C. Department of Social Services said Friday it will seek a federal waiver for a pilot project that would require many food-stamp recipients in Bamberg, Calhoun and Orangeburg counties to prove they either have jobs or are looking for employment.

In its announcement of the proposed “SNAP Work 2 Health” waiver, Social Services cited an Ohio State University study that found Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients gained more weight the longer they received food stamps.

“Research shows a strong correlation between unemployment and obesity and other significant health conditions,” Social Services said in a news release. “The research also shows that SNAP recipients are more likely to become less healthy the longer they receive SNAP benefits.”

But Jay Zagorsky, the lead author of the Ohio State study, has said the takeaway from that study should be that food-stamp benefits are too meager to pay for healthy foods. Zagorsky’s proposed solution? Create incentives to encourage food-stamp recipients to buy healthier food, which was where the S.C. effort originally seemed headed.

The food stamp-obesity issue is so complex that those on both sides of the debate cite the same statistics as proof. That heated rhetoric was clear from the moment the eat-healthier idea was broached two years ago by Catherine Templeton, director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Templeton led a series of public sessions throughout the state last year on the topic of restricting what foods could be purchased with food stamps.

Many food-stamp recipients said they couldn’t afford healthier foods or their neighborhood stores didn’t offer many healthy options. Rather than restrict use of food stamps, advocates for the poor instead pushed for expanding a program that doubles SNAP benefits when they are used to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. The results of those sessions were turned over to Social Services, which administers the SNAP program in the state.

While advocates for the poor didn’t like the eat-healthier idea, they like the new proposal even less.

“It breaks my heart that those of us working on removing barriers have to deal with others putting up more barriers,” said Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, which advocates for low-income South Carolinians. “Why do we keep thinking that they’re not good people? And that’s what we’re saying if we say you’ve got to prove you’re looking for a job.”

After the eat-healthier sessions, Social Services director Lillian Koller said her agency was “looking at options and we’re preparing to make a request that will improve the health of South Carolinians.”

What Social Services came up with, seven months later, is a pilot program that would require about a quarter of the 33,200 food-stamp recipients in Bamberg, Calhoun and Orangeburg counties to prove they have jobs or are looking for a job. About 3,800 food-stamp recipients in those three counties – between the ages of 18 and 49, and with no dependents or disabilities – already have to have jobs or be looking for jobs to get food stamps. Under the waiver proposal, about 8,600 additional adults with dependents older than 6 also would have to have jobs.

Social Services has experience helping welfare recipients get jobs.

In the last three years, Social Services has helped 20,700 South Carolinians on food stamps or welfare – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families – find jobs. If the food-stamp waiver is approved, Social Services will provide job-search assistance to those affected by the change, said Amber Gillum, deputy state director of the agency’s Office of Economic Services.

Jobs aren’t easy to come by in the counties included in the waiver.

Bamberg has the fourth-highest jobless rate of any S.C. county – 10.4 percent – and Orangeburg is sixth worst – at 9.7 percent. Calhoun County’s jobless rate is 6.5 percent.

Advocates for the poor say the image of lazy people sitting at home, eating candy bars paid for with food stamps, is off base. Nationally, at least one person in 58 percent of the households that get food stamps is employed, according to one federal survey.

But Haley’s office says the Social Services waiver request is part of a multi-pronged effort to address obesity in South Carolina. In recent months, the state’s Medicaid agency has sought permission to pay doctors to treat obesity as a condition. Money also has been approved to pay for dietitians to work with people diagnosed with obesity.

“Obesity is a serious issue in South Carolina, contributing to rising health-care costs and countless other diseases that affect far too many of our citizens,” said Doug Mayer, spokesman for Republican Gov. Haley, who is running for re-election in November. “Finding a solution to this problem will take a team effort and that is exactly what we are doing here – providing South Carolinians with the support they need to improve their overall health and quality of life.”

Haley’s Democratic opposition sees it differently.

“Under Nikki Haley, South Carolina is one of the toughest places to earn a living and hardworking families are fighting to stay afloat as wages fall,” said Kristin Sosanie, communications director for the S.C. Democratic Party. “Nikki Haley’s SNAP proposals continue to show that she doesn’t understand the needs of rural South Carolinians or the struggles of too many single moms.”

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